Remembering Kristallnacht

'The End of My Childhood'

75 years after Kristallnacht, survivors look back on the orgy of violence against the German Jews.

“I still don’t know if that night was either the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. But it clearly marked a turning point”, says the now 81-year-old Dr. Menachem Mayer. He and his family had led an ordinary life in the village of Hoffenheim, in Southwestern Germany – a life that suddenly ended in the early hours of November 10, 1938. It was well before dawn when German forces broke into the Mayers' home, pulled six-year-old Menachem, his parents and his brother Manfred, 9, out of their second-floor apartment, threw their belongings into the street and burned the nearby synagogue.

The nationwide pogrom has made history as "The Night of the Broken Glass", or “Kristallnacht” in German. It was exactly 75 years ago that Nazi storm troopers murdered hundreds of German Jews and destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish shops

“I still remember standing on the street, only wearing pajamas and watching those Nazi SA (Assault Division) thugs wrecking our life”, says Dr. Mayer as if no time had passed since then. “I may have forgotten many things - but this image was burned into my memory since 75 years. It was the end of my childhood.”

At the end of 1940, the two young brothers and their parents were deported to France and held in a detention camp there. In 1942, the parents were then sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Heinz was smuggled into Switzerland under a false name, and Manfred was hidden in France until the liberation. The brothers survived. Manfred made his way to the United States while Menachem immigrated to Israel in 1948, installed himself in Jerusalem and became a science teaching superintendent.

Back in 1938, when little Menachem watched his family’s furniture burn in Hoffenheim, only a few kilometers away another Jewish boy’s life as he had known it ended. “I looked out of my window and saw the smoke rise from the direction of our beautiful Synagogue”, says John Katten, who had been born by the name of Hans in 1928 in a Bavarian town called Bamberg. “It was a very cold night, but I went on my bicycle to see what had happened.”

The synagogue was burning and many firemen had come to the site. “But they didn’t do anything. They had only come to prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings. It was completely shocking for me”, remembers the now 84-years-old John.

On the next day, a policeman came to the door of the Katten family and arrested John’s father, the rabbi of the community. Together with all the other Jewish men of Bamberg, he was taken to the Dachau Concentration Camp. “My father returned six weeks after his arrest. He was only a shadow of his former self”, says John.

The Katten family managed to escape to England in 1939. There, John Katten became a well-known architect and finally made aliyah with his wife in 1988. Today, they live in Herzliya. As an architect he had also been involved with constructing synagogues. “So at the end of the day, I saw one temple being destroyed but I was lucky enough to build two myself.”

Fanny Englard, 88, still remembers the question she had asked herself back on that night of November 9, 1938 in Cologne: “How could God allow this to happen?” In her hometown alone, seven Jewish temples were destroyed. “I come from a very religious family, meaning the Torah was holy for us. Back then you could see synagogues and Torah scrolls burning all over the city. My world just caved in.”

Like many other German Jews, Fanny Englard had clung on the hope that the situation would not further worsen. But on December 6, 1941, the 16-year-old girl was deported to Riga. After being liberated by the Red Army four years later on March 8, 1945, she learnt that her father, her mother and three of her brothers had been murdered by the Nazis. In May 1947, Fanny Englard arrived in Israel.

While her own history is a tremendous burden to her, she also feels a responsibility deriving from it. At her home in a Moshav south of Tel Aviv, she regularly meets with young Germans volunteering in the “Aktion Sühnezeichen” (today called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace). The organization conducts a variety of anti-racism and social-welfare programs in Germany, Israel and other countries where Holocaust survivors live.

“Many of them want to atone for the guilt of their forefathers. But one cannot atone for what has happened. These things took place and they can’t be put right”, Fanny Englard says. “So I tell them that they are obliged to take responsibility for the future. This “never again” is their atonement.”

A Bruenn JR shop, a Jewish-run store after it has been vandalized by Nazis and its frontwall inscripted with anti-Semitic graffiti after Kristallnacht.
AFP